Features Australia

Cancel culture

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

Everyone who hasn’t spent the last six months under a rock knows about Israel Folau and how he’s raised northwards of two million dollars to fund his religious freedom case. Bully for him. Already a millionaire, he’s not going short while litigating all the way to the High Court. Have you heard of Brian Leach, Andy Ngo, or Noah Carl, though? All three are ‘little blokes’ — in Ngo’s case literally as well as figuratively — and all have been ‘cancelled’ in such a way as to put Folau’s situation in the shade.

Brian Leach worked as a ‘greeter’ for downmarket UK supermarket chain Asda in Dewsbury, Yorkshire. He was fired for sharing a well-known Billy Connolly stand-up routine poking fun at religion, including Islam’s fondness for suicide bombing. ‘Now that’s a bright idea,’ Connolly said in between his usual swear words. ‘Every time there’s a bang the world’s a wanker short’. This ‘sharing’ was on Leach’s personal Facebook profile. Terrifyingly, the complaints came from seven work colleagues — people he thought were his friends. Leach is 55 years old, disabled, and will almost certainly never work again.

Noah Carl was a junior academic at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge who had — perhaps unwisely — done research into stereotype accuracy. He had (consistent with most work in this area) found that common stereotypes are statistically accurate. In one paper, for example, he found that opposition to immigrants of different nationalities correlates strongly with their arrest rates in the UK. This was completed while he was still a student at Oxford, but once he won a prestigious academic fellowship at ‘the other place’, cancel culture went into overdrive. First targeted online (particularly on Twitter) by open letter and accused of promulgating ‘racist pseudoscience’, St. Edmund’s later experienced weekly protests against his appointment. It advised Carl to stay away from college grounds and not speak to the press. In the end — despite offering up the fig leaf of two internal inquiries — it sacked him. Carl is a 28-year-old scientist with an Oxford doctorate. He is currently unemployed.

Andy Ngo is a photojournalist for the Wall Street Journal, Quillette, and the Australian. He’s also a beady-eyed senior copy editor for Quillette. Late last month — while covering an ‘antifa’ (short for ‘anti-fascist’) rally in his native Portland, Oregon — he was beaten and hospitalised, and had his camera stolen. Local police stood idly by. The beating seems to have come about in part because his employers have his back. ‘Antifa’, meanwhile, bears comparison with football firms and other manifestations of gang culture that give hopeless, underachieving men an outlet. There have always been people for whom violence is exciting; ‘antifa’ lets them clothe this deeply unattractive attribute in politically noble clothes. Ngo is a physically small, placid man; he’s going to be on ‘light duties’ for a while.

I’ve observed before that I could write about people ‘cancelled’ thanks to offendotrons on a weekly basis and often have to resist the impulse. I have given way this time because two of the men whose stories are sketched out above are friends. I took Ngo around the British Museum last year (my standard offer to US visitors in Blighty) and observed the seriousness with which he takes his craft. Like Carl, I too went to Oxford and knew him before any controversy emerged. I assisted him in obtaining legal representation to bring a claim against St. Edmund’s.

Writing about both men using only their surnames feels strange.

Like Folau, both Ngo and Carl have fundraisers — Ngo’s set up while he was in hospital by a colleague, Carl’s with the assistance of his solicitor. It’s perhaps indicative of the way social class works in these Islands that there appears to be nothing in support of Leach. He’s tucked his tail between his legs, gone home, and accepted his unhappy lot. Meanwhile, Billy Connolly is still safely ensconced (with his legions of fans) as a national treasure. It’s also perhaps indicative of the horrors of US healthcare that some of Ngo’s third-party funds will go towards paying future medical bills — he suffered neurological damage during the assault (the technical term is ‘subarachnoid haemorrhage’).

It should go without saying that what ‘antifa’ did to Ngo was worse than Leach and Carl getting sacked. Of late, however, I’ve been forced to restate in simple terms basic rules about interacting with political opponents in civil society. Social media has so thinned the membrane between ‘the bad thought’ all of us have from time to time and actually carrying it out that people need to be reminded that bashing journalists from politically-opposed publications is unacceptable behaviour. We forget that road rage is what happens when people act on ‘the bad thought’ to take to middle-lane-merchants (‘merchant banker’ being Cockney rhyming slang for ‘wanker’) on the motorway with an RPG.

I had ‘the bad thought’ about thumping journalists trespassing on my parents’ property back in Brisbane during the controversy over my novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Unlike Ngo, I really am large and strong and capable of doing terrible damage to someone smaller than me, particularly if he’s burdened with photographic equipment. But I knew then — instinctively, intuitively — that part of the price of living in a liberal democracy is journalists get a degree of latitude to behave like bellends. If you don’t allow them that latitude, you’re really not far removed from Putin’s thugs or any other tin-pot third-world dictator you care to name.

It’s nonetheless true that getting someone sacked often operates as a handy substitute for violence. Australian legal academic Russell Blackford has written (in a book-length study of the phenomenon, The Tyranny of Opinion) how cybermobs set out to ‘destroy’ opponents, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to deprive them of the means to earn a living. Carl and Leach are in a genuine spot. All three men are a reminder there’s a vast gulf between high profile cases like Folau’s and what happens to little people.

Oh yes, and ‘cancel culture’ is the political equivalent of road rage.

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